How I Shoot- How to Make a Budget and Fantastic Travel Camera Bag (that doesn’t look like a camera bag)!.

By Posted in - Big Trip & Budget Travel & Featured Post & How I Shoot & Photography Posts & Photos & Travel Gear & Travel Resources on April 5th, 2011

How I Shoot: A new series coming from yours truly at BeersandBeans. It’s going to be a monthly series where I highlight something I find useful in terms of travel photography – be it gear, tips, technical data, etc. Hope you like it – this is the first installation!

Well I think a lot of my followers know that I am super budget when it comes to travel. I like to STRETCH my dollar as far as possible so I can stay on the road longer. But no matter what I do, one part of travel that can be extremely expensive is my photography gear. I try to buy the best deal possible, but sometimes what I need just costs a good chunk of money and there isn’t much I can do about it.

But I am always racking my brain for new ideas about camera gear that I can make myself or find cheaper–read: isn’t labeled as photographic gear. It seems once you add the “photo” label onto things the price goes through the roof.

Remember when I wanted the ridiculously overpriced Hoodman ($80) to check my LCD screen in the sun? Luckily the store ran out and I made my own (which I still use and carted around Europe with me) for only $1 !!! Sure it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, but it gets the job done and for a buck – I’m happy. If you missed that post check it out – Travel Photo Gear Hack.

Another great way to save money on gear is with your camera bag. I am always scouring around for the perfect bag. I love multiple pockets, over the shoulder bags and cool designs, but I hate the $100+ price tag that comes on most photo bags I like. Plus, I have one golden rule for traveling with my camera –


Never. Ever.

Why should I? Nothing says “Please Rob Me” more than having a techie looking bag slung on your back, especially one that has a brand name on it. I have taken my camera to some pretty sketchy places and it’s nice to know that if I feel uncomfortable I can simply leave it in the bag and no one will know that it even exists. I also love shooting street photos and I like to be as undercover as possible. Plus, I find that most camera bags aren’t great for travel. They are too bulky, yet don’t have room for everything I need (guidebook, water bottle, etc). And I hate the way they stick out from my body when I am wearing them. As much as I still like to admire camera bags (I always play around with them at camera shops), I don’t really use them. I don’t even use a “camera” bag when I shoot weddings.

I will be honest and say that I have spent years constantly on the search for the perfect bag.

I’ve tried everything from a Mexican street bag to a small, flexible lunch cooler. For months, I scouted around, looking for the perfect diaper bag to use (they’re already padded and hey who is going to think about stealing a diaper bag!). But whenever I found one that was the right size and didn’t have a picture of Winnie the Pooh on it – the price was through the roof, which nixed the deal. Maybe someday if we have a kid I can do a combo deal – diapers & lenses! hahaha

ahhh....Pockets Galore!

At long last, I thought I found the perfect bag when I found this gem at an Army Navy store for only $27. It has several pockets and even two on the ends (I used one for my water bottle and and for my beer cozy loupe)! To top it off it was already lined with a plush padding similar to a real camera bag. I have no idea why but it’s perfect! And it actually came with a removable insert that I could use to separate items. To top it off the entire inside is made of velco (the soft side of velcro), which means I can actually arrange camera bag inserts into it if I want and they stay in place. It fits all my travel gear (Nikon D300s w/ 18-250 lens, 35mm lens, SB900 flash, various filters, cards, batteries) and it’s made out of a super tough canvas. It also looks cool. I love this bag and for $27 you can’t go wrong.

I love this bag, just a bit too big for every day use on the road.

I brought it to Europe, but as it turns out it was also too much to carry on a daily basis. After toting it around day in and day out, it ended up suffering from the same “too bulky” problem that most camera bags have. After awhile my back was killing me, and this bag was traded in for another bag I had brought with me as a back up. I still use the Army Navy bag but not on the daily basis that I use this $7 wonder.

The main bag I travel with (and shoot weddings with) currently is this little purple beauty.

Randy models the purple wonder!

I bought the purple bag at Walmart for $7. Yup, that’s right only 7 bucks. This little bad boy holds all of the same gear as the Army Navy Bag. It’s a great, simple bag; though, I had to make some minor adjustments in order to use it for my photo gear. I’m going to give a run down of what I did to it so that you can do the same if you wish.

Yes, you too, can be free of the bulky camera bag and the insane price tag that goes with it.

There are 4 important *Must Have* things I need in a camera bag:

1. A comfy strap

2. Pockets

3. Padding

4. Zipper Enclosure

Most likely a $7 bag is not going to come with all of those things.

So how did I turn a $7 Walmart bag into a kickin’ travel camera bag?

First: I snapped a padded shoulder strap onto the already existing metal areas for the original strap. I left the original strap on and it’s been a great decision because if I need to, I can use the camera strap and the normal strap for extra security and comfort. I already owned this strap but new it would cost about $20.

Second: My nickname as a kid was Pockets. I LOVE pockets – the more the better. Turns out this bag has 1 large zippered pocket and 2 smaller open pockets inside. At first, I thought I would need more pockets, so I bought a flexible pencil case to store my memory cards and batteries in. I was initially planning to sew it into the interior of the bag to create another pocket, but I never used it. Turns out the zippered pocket fits my credit cards, ID, passport and memory cards. I use the open interior pockets for easy grab items like filters, business cards and a pen.

This stuff is great - inexpensive, lightweight and protective!

Third: This bag is super thin and has NO padding at all – Good for being lightweight, bad for protecting gear. I actually love the thin, lightweight aspect of the bag, but I was definitely not going to throw all of my photo gear in a non padded bag and go off gallivanting the world that way and I don’t recommend you do that either. So while I was in Walmart, I headed over to the bedroom department and bought a twin egg crate mattress for $9. I went home and cut off a section that fit perfectly into my bag. Instant padding! I love this! Not only is it sufficient padding for the bag and my gear, I can also remove it if I have to and use it elsewhere to protect my camera. What is nice about this is you can really custom pad your bag with as much padding as you want. Another great thing is that I brought an extra piece which wraps around our laptop. Occasionally on a night out we would put all the gear, including the laptop, in the purple bag. It meant we could trade off carrying gear (instead of us both having a bag) and everything was protected with it’s respective eggcrate. Normally, the laptop is carried in a retrofitted CamelBak (with it’s own non-eggcrate carrier) that is also set up as a 2nd home for camera gear (I’ll elaborate on this in another post). The key thing in designing your eggcrate insulation is to remember that not only do you need to protect your gear from bumps on the outside of the bag, but you also you need to prevent your gear from bumping into other gear in the bag. When you make your own lining, you can customize your sections however you want, plus the egg crate material is really lightweight.

Yah! It expands for more space!

Fourth: This bag already had a zipper enclosure, and as an added bonus it’s also a long bag so the top actually flips down over the side. I love this because it really doesn’t look like a camera bag at all and if I need to put more items in there I can just extend the top and magically double my space! I can actually fit a journal, a guidebook/map, my camera, a flash, extra lens, extra batteries, memory cards and a couple other miscellaneous things in here. I put the guidebook and maps to the side to provide for extra padding. I can put a water bottle in here as well but I don’t out for fear of water leaking on my gear, so I just attach my water bottle to the outside of the bag. I recommend you never carry a water bottle in any camera bag, because one day it will leak and you will be really, really unhappy.

The water bottle reminds me of another important aspect of any camera bag (bought or created). Waterproof your gear if you can. I always get caught in rainstorms, so I carry around a duck back from REI as well (around $15) and I simply cover my bag with it. They are extremely lightweight and it is a must have for anyone on the road with technical gear, which I’m pretty sure is just about everyone. I have used it several times and like the shoulder strap, it’s priceless. In the backpack, I also carry a wet bag but we have yet to use it.

So for about $36 you could buy all of these items and make your own, fantastic camera bag. If you already own any of these items, you might be able to make a great camera bag for free! If you don’t want to make one but still want to find a more budget friendly option be sure to check out your local Army Navy store or Goodwill. You can find great bags in there at a huge discount that might be perfect.

My purple wonder is very lightweight, which for me is a huge bonus. I loved mine so much and I still had left over eggcrate so when we got back to the States I went back to Walmart and bought another one for $7 in black!

So whether you’re hopping trains in Europe, hiking mountains in Peru, partying up on clubbing holidays in Ibiza or just walking through the spice markets of Turkey you can be sure you have a great camera bag that not only protects your gear but is economical and won’t set off the radar of any would be thieves.

*Please remember all photos on this website, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted and property of, & Bethany Salvon. Please do not use them without my permission. If you want to use one of them please contact me first because I do love to share and I would be flattered. Thanks!

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(25) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Nestor -

    April 5, 2011 at 5:47 am

    Great writeup. I actually dig the first bag though. I never thought of looking at an army supply store. I know the perfect store to hit up when I get to the Netherlands. I’ve seen some really nice camera bags though that don’t look like camera bags, but the prices are insane.

    • Bethany -

      April 5, 2011 at 6:02 am

      Yah, I love that bag too. I always travel with it but I just can’t use it everyday since it’s a bit bulky for me. I’ve seen the camera bags too that don’t look like camera bags and they are ridiculously expensive, which is why I set out to make my own. 🙂 Thanks for commenting – I would love to hear if you find a bag at an Army Navy store! 🙂 @Nestor,

  • sarah wu -

    April 5, 2011 at 7:10 am

    That is so cool, I love your bag – I can’t even tell there is camera in it. Feel just like a travel outting bookbag.

    • Bethany -

      April 5, 2011 at 7:47 am

      Well actually there isn’t a camera in it there because I used the camera to take the picture but it really doesn’t look much different -just a little fuller. I love that bag! No one ever knows 🙂 @sarah wu,

  • Scott – Quirky Travel Guy -

    April 5, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Great idea! I don’t use a camera bag but for the reasons you mentioned… it didn’t occur to me to find a stealth camera bag.

  • ayngelina -

    April 5, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Your purple wonder looks like my grey wonder from Old Navy. My bag is so tattered no one has any idea that something is valuable inside.

    I also use an old guitar strap for my camera strap. I think “Canon” or “Nikon” straps also draw too much attention.

    • Bethany -

      April 5, 2011 at 9:49 am

      Yeah – that’s perfect tattered and beat up looking is the best way to go! Those Canon/Nikon straps are the worst – why would you want to broadcast it, especially the ones that say what type of camera you have? I hate those things. @ayngelina,

  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures -

    April 5, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Great post and perfect timing, I was literally checking out Etsy last night for camera bags and was shocked by the prices!

    • Bethany -

      April 5, 2011 at 10:27 am

      Yeah, at least the one good thing on Etsy is that you can get one made however you want but they are still pricey. This is a great option 🙂@Andi of My Beautiful Adventures,

  • jill – Jack and Jill Travel The World -

    April 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    I love it! I hate the regular camera bags anyway, they look sooo boring. I came across another DIY camera bag project: All of these cute purses turned camera bags definitely makes me want to make my own.

  • Bluegreen Kirk -

    April 7, 2011 at 6:18 am

    Really like the look of the bags but I dont like carrying anything with me especially another bag. Seem like I end up being the person to carry everything for the group. Put this in this pocket hold this for me. I need to have my friends read this and get one.

    • Bethany -

      April 7, 2011 at 7:06 am

      Oh it sucks you are that guy! I know that used to happen to me a lot too! One way to fix that is for sure to never carry a bag. hahaha @Bluegreen Kirk,

  • Laura -

    April 7, 2011 at 8:41 am

    You make such a great point. i never thought of it but an obvious camera bag does scream “please rob me”. I stopped carrying my camera bag due to the bulk an started using a smaller across the shoulder bag. It worked for my trip but was inconvenient to get stuff out of and didn’t provide any sort of padding for my camera. I’m still on the hunt for the perfect bag but you make some great suggestions and I might just have to put together my own!

    • Bethany -

      April 8, 2011 at 8:24 am

      Yeah, it’s very easy to make your own – you can even order a camera bag insert and put it in your bag to seperate things quickly. You want to make sure you protect your camera though 🙂

      Plus if you make your own they can be cute and you can switch them out all the time. 🙂@Laura,

  • Kelsey -

    April 8, 2011 at 10:14 am

    I am a big fan of military bags for camera bags. They’re well-suited to the task, and very unobtrusive.

    I love your idea for this post series. I was originally going to have a similar series on my blog called “How I Got the Shot”, but I think I may do something like this as well, if you don’t mind!

    • Bethany -

      April 8, 2011 at 9:32 pm

      The more the merrier 🙂@Kelsey,

  • Jason -

    April 11, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Some great tips there Bethany, and I couldn’t agree with you more in relation to having a camera bag that doesn’t have a sign saying ‘ROB ME’ written all over it.

    I use a small backpack for carrying my camera. It does have it’s downside though, as you need to take it off to access the camera, but most of the time I’ve got my camera in hand anyway.

    It’s a purpose built camera bag, but looks just like a normal day pack. It’s quite small but allows me to carry all that I need for the day, with the camera gear stored separately at the bottom with it’s own zip.

    The bag you bought at the Army / Navy store looks great. Being heavy duty canvas it will no doubt last for many miles of travel. Love your photography work and your site. Safe travels.

    • Bethany -

      April 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm

      I was looking for a bag like that for a long time but could never find the right one at the right price – good for you – you found a great bag! 🙂 @Jason,

  • […] does she make it work? Condensed version below. Please see the official post on Beers & Beans to get all the details. First: I snapped a padded shoulder strap onto the already existing metal […]

  • Andy -

    September 4, 2011 at 2:22 am

    Bit late to the party here but loving this idea. Just bit the bullet and bought a new camera for travelling along with a Lowepro case. Will be sending it back! Thanks for the idea

    • Bethany -

      September 4, 2011 at 3:33 pm

      Hi Andy,

      Glad I could help! Once you start making camera bags out of regular bags it’s hard to go back to the expensive camera only bags! @Andy,

  • Nancie -

    September 6, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Great post Bethany. Honestly, I know myself too well, while I think this is fantastic, I would never do it…..haha.

    I am looking at 3 different camera bags here, all Lowepro, and I finally have one that I really like. I bought it at Costco for under 40.00, which was a huge surprise.

    I still love your idea of do it yourself!

  • Jessika -

    February 20, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    I also hate camera bags. I did some research and found this camera bag that fits nicely into other regular bags or purses.
    It also came with a nice hand written thank you note inside, awesome company. But it’s nice that I can just throw it in my backpack, a totebag or even my purse. It has an adjustable divider inside and a few little pockets. Not too expensive either.